...and almost was burned to death in a Florida hotel
Mme Bourlard, 80, now lives peaceful days in Béthune
Sunday May 9th and Monday May 10th, 1965
Mme Bourlard, who was born in Hersin-Coupigny, near Béthune, 80 years ago, lived quite a restless life; she left for the United States in 1910, she travelled around the whole world, lived for nearly fifty years near San Francisco, almost met her death in a gigantic fire in Florida but most of all was one of the survivors of the Titanic, which went down in the night of April 14th/15th, 1912. Now, after leading such an eventful life, Mme Bourlard peacefully lives in Béthune, at the Sully home for elderly people.
Her posh apartment was still cluttered with trunks just landed from America; very nicely, Mme Bourlard met us and shared with us a few episodes of her restless life.
She was born on August 10th, 1884, at Mr. Leroy’s modest collier home in Hersin. After leaving school, she was sent to work to Paris at a family who lived Avenue du Bois and that is where her life faced a brand new future. Among the very important people evolving in the world of industry and business who often visited this house, there was one Mr. Douglas, a rich American captain of industry whose fortune was settled manufacturing some delicious flour, some kind of porridge oats which, along with milk, bacon and other such items, makes the American breakfast the best meal of the day. Mr. Douglas who, along with his wife, travelled through the world, hired Melle Berthe Leroy as a maid. She would be a companion to Mrs Douglas and would teach her French. Then, some day back in 1910, the great adventure began for a young girl from the Artois region who never thought she would live such an incredible life.
On board the Titanic, on the evening of April 14th, 1912
She came back on the European continent more than twenty times. But beyond these voyages when she was allowed to visit her family, she followed her employers through the United States from coast to coast, and from the northern to the southern border, but also Canada and almost every country in South America.
Yet, her life as a globe-trotter began rather ominously.
On April 10th, 1912, on a return journey from Europe, she boarded the Titanic which was sailing to New York from Southampton via Cherbourg. Nothing went wrong on the great ship, which was a mammoth liner for the time, every engineer stating that she was unsinkable… until April 14th, a few minutes before midnight.
Melle Leroy was sound asleep in her berth, as were many other passengers, when in an indescribable crash an iceberg over 100 feet high hit the ship on her bows, tearing her hull on more than 320 feet. “We first thought of a storm so violent were the noise and jar”, says Mme Bourlard. “Then a sailor came into the cabin and, throwing me a lifejacket, shouted to me: “Fly away, where you can”. Then the young passengers reached the deck. She remembers the apocalyptic vision, the panic stricken people, women and children shouting and crying, the band still playing.
The captain and his officers were trying to maintain order, seeing the men getting away from the lifeboats. Mme Douglas, accompanied by Melle Leroy, got into lifeboat #2 and she steered it, whereas her young maid rowed as strongly as she could. Mr. Douglas remained on the deck of the Titanic, telling his wife who begged him to save himself, that he “had to behave like a man”. As many other men, he drowned that night.
Until dawn on board lifeboats
From her lifeboat rowing away from the Titanic, Melle Leroy saw a scene “she wished she could have painted if she had had some artistic talent”, she told us. The ship was slowly going down, the lifeboats were filling in one after the other and left the liner, and a huge iceberg was looming over the scene, shining white in the clear and starlit night, rising on an incredibly smooth sea, as calm as a millpond, as many a survivor later recalled.
“We may have been fifty in this boat”, recalls Mme Bourlard, who adds “I was rowing with all my strength to escape from this nightmare yet we were rowing round the ship”. Maybe was it in order to pick up passengers who had jumped to the sea and who cried for help; for more and more wrecked people grabbed the boats in which they were hoisted.
That morning, some time after two o’clock, the Titanic, erected against the horizon, went down in the sea. Out of her 2.207 passengers, only 651 had escaped in the lifeboats.
“It was not until 4 o’clock that the Carpathia, the ship which was to rescue us, came into sight, sailing between sea and sky” states Mme Bourlard. From the beginning of the disaster, another ship was in the neighbourhood, but our rockets did not awake them. She steamed away, thinking that there was a party on the Titanic and that we fired fireworks. Nowadays, such a disaster could not happen, but at the time we had no radar and wireless was not a common thing; at last, modern liners are much quicker”, states the most agreeable lady.
“For nights, I dreamt I was rowing into mud”
Mme Bourlard remembers how she was welcome on board the rescue ship. The lifeboats were quickly hoisted, clothes and linen brought up, the passengers were fed, given tea, coffee and other drinks in order to warm these poor wretched people who had survived that cold April night in the middle of the North Atlantic ocean. The Carpathia steamed to New York where the crowd, first worried and then in a frenzy, acclaimed these women, children and men who were coming back from hell.
“For endless nights, the most horrible nightmares crawled into my head”, says Mme Bourlard : “I dreamt I was rowing, on water first and then on some kind of black mud in which I was stuck.”
And then life resumed for Melle Leroy who remained for many a year by the side of Mr. Douglas’s widow, accompanying her on her trips. Other terrible events were still to befall her. Indeed, the lady who had almost drowned nearly met her death in a big fire which burnt to ashes the hotel where she was staying in a forest in Florida. She only was saved because she immediately ran through the flames and smoke, in the middle of the night.
A beautiful house among orange trees along the Pacific coast
In 1929, she became Mme Gaston Bourlard, when she married another Hersin-Coupigny born man, whom she had known for many years and who had made up his mind to join her in the United States. There, he found a very good-paying job as a tire maker.
Mme Bourlard remembers her beautiful house in Santa Barbara, near Los Angeles, in California. In the park which spread all around it, there were odorant orange trees, and colourful mountains were her everyday setting overlooking the vast Pacific ocean.
It was not an easy decision for her, but Mme Bourlard, who was widowed in 1955, made up her mind and left for good the earthly paradise that the New World proved to be to her, but where she no longer had any family left, and came back in her native Artois region. Here, she was welcome by her family, and settled again under our sun, certainly dreaming of the warmer one over there, in California. She wisely listened to the poet and “came back among her folks to spend the rest of her days”.
[Note. On Thursday May 9th, 1912, fourteenth day of the American Senate enquiry into the loss of the Titanic, senator Smith read Mrs Douglas’s affidavit, where she never mentioned having had to row despite the lack of men in the lifeboats: « Mrs Appleton and some other women had been rowing and did row all of the time ». When lifeboat #2, in which were Mrs Douglas and Berthe Leroy, reached the Carpathia, around 4:10 AM, Mrs Douglas, who had grown hysterical, shouted : « The Titanic has gone down with everyone on board! » Officer Boxhall, who was in charge of lifeboat #2, curtly asked her to: « Shut up! » She forgave him.]